In the student co-op in Berkeley where I lived in the 1980s, friends hung out on futons on the floor and casual touch and backrubs were common. Sometimes they led to sex (resulting in everything from morning-after regrets to decades-long marriages) but often the touching was platonic. It was long before the #MeToo movement, and for better or worse I don’t recall anyone expressing much concern about boundaries.
Now I live in Washington. It’s not a cuddly city. People are highly conscious of boundaries (at least in public) and tend to avoid intentional contact with strangers or acquaintances. Even before the careers of politicians, Hollywood stars and media professionals started imploding right and left, people kept their hands to themselves.
But professional cuddling, an occupation on the rise in our touch-starved culture, is informed by consent. According to the rules established by cuddle parties and cuddling websites, nothing happens that both people don’t verbally agree to in advance.
Following the protocol of Cuddlist.com, where Annie received her training, she and I had had an initial get-to-know-you phone call. During it, she urged me to talk to her as a client and not a reporter. Since I am a single mom, she surmised that I am used to giving a lot of care but might not receive much myself, and she told me I might be surprised at feelings that arose.
Right now, the dominant feeling was awkwardness. How would I like to start? Lying on the foam in loose sweatpants and a sweater as the music twanged mildly, I was stumped.
“Honestly,” I told her, “when I saw your massage table in the other room, I was kind of wishing I could get a massage. But that would be cheating.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” she said. There was no wrong way to cuddle. So I pointed to trouble spots in my neck and hip. A longtime massage therapist, Annie found the tightness and pressed into it, which felt great.
But this was totally cheating. If I wanted to see what the cuddling experience was about, I couldn’t spend the whole hour getting kneaded. I had to plunge into untested waters.
“So,” I asked. “What are the most common cuddle positions?”
“Hmm, I’m feeling like you have your reporter hat on now,” she said.
Yes and no. As a paying client, I also wanted to know what was possible in an hour of service.
All right, she said. Spooning is popular.
“That sounds good,” I said.
“Would you like to be the big spoon or the little spoon?” she asked.
Hmm. Cuddling seemed to require a lot of decisions from the cuddlee. It’s not like going to a chiropractor or massage therapist, where you sit back and let the pro handle it. This was more like feeling around in the dark for an object whose shape I was unsure of.
I chose little spoon, and she curled around my back and wrapped her arm around me. After a few minutes she said, “I’m feeling like I want to take your hand. Would that be something you would like me to do?”
I thought that made sense, so I said yes. During the remainder of the session we tried — after discussing — several cuddling positions, including me lying back against her in a sitting-up toboggan position with her arms around me. At 50 minutes a warning buzzer rang, and 10 minutes later the session was over. We chatted a bit, then I paid her and left.
As I drove back to my office I tried to think through what exactly had bothered me about the session. Though my experience with professional cuddling is limited, Annie seemed to be good at it. She’s a mom, and she has a physical presence that is both cozy and confident. Likely a regular, non-journalist client would have come in with a more focused set of desires (and no reporter hat). But that wasn’t what gave me pause.
It was the consent. Professional cuddling is by definition nonsexual, but the rules of cuddling felt similar to what college students today are taught to follow during sexual encounters. Maybe I’m a horrible retrograde, but I don’t want to be asked. If I am lying in someone’s arms, whether for cuddling or something else, I want there to be a degree of intuitiveness and faith that it’s all good.
Is that something that, in cuddling, would come with time? Does a cuddler get to know what works with a client and what doesn’t to the point where she doesn’t have to ask? I called Annie to inquire.
The answer was complex. In one sense, yes: As in any relationship, repeat cuddle sessions allow participants to learn each other’s rhythms. But even then, she said, “I still like to check in with someone. … There are some times when a certain kind of touch is okay but a different kind of touch is preferable. So with a regular, I ask, ‘Can you check in with your body right now and what is the piece that most wants to be addressed and how are you interacting with your body right now?’ And that tends to change from day-to-day and moment to moment.”
That applies not only to cuddling, she said, but to life. “My hope is that my clients learn how to express themselves and what their desires are at the moment so that when they go out and they have relationships with others — romantic or other intimate relationships — that they’ve learned the skill of speaking up. … You can’t really consent to something if you don’t know what you want.”
Maybe that was my problem. I had not gone in with a particular cuddling desire. I had gone to see — and report on — what it was all about. And I’d left my hat on.